How to Control Automatic Negative Thoughts and Master Your Mind
How to Control Automatic Negative Thoughts and Master Your Mind
Automatic negative thoughts can control how we think, act, and feel. They are tricky to deal with, especially when they happen automatically. We’ll explore how we can take command of our thoughts and make them work for us!
We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.Anais Nin
The first steps we should take to address our automatic negative thoughts are understanding and recognizing them. Afterward, we can catch and destroy them. If we create a habit of healthy thinking, we can avoid letting negativity get the best of us.
Understanding Automatic Negative Thoughts
When we don’t have the time or energy to think situations through, our minds can often guess, which leads to hasty and ill-informed decisions. This is especially bad when our conclusions are negative.
Our thoughts cause physical reactions within us. They release chemicals into in our brains and bodies that change how we think and feel. These emotional impulses drive our decisions.
Whenever you have thoughts that are positive, happy, hopeful, or loving, your brain and body release chemicals that work together to make you feel good: dopamine, serotonin, and beta-endorphins. These hormones are responsible for making you feel positive emotions.
On the other hand, when we have negative thoughts, they release stress hormones. When we talk to ourselves and reinforce the negative thoughts, they grow.
The most powerful dialogues are the ones we have with ourselves. This is when we tend to judge, either with praise or condemnation. This self-talk also shapes what we believe about ourselves. Want to learn more about breaking self-limiting beliefs?
When these automatic negative thoughts are allowed to run around our minds unchecked, it can lead to feeling upset, down, and anxious.
When we repeat these automatic negative thoughts, it can begin a vicious cycle. The thoughts provoke stress hormones, which leads to even more negative thoughts. Repeating these thoughts will lead us into rumination and depression. If we don’t control the stress, we can become more vulnerable to neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. You can learn more about overcoming depression and rumination in our recent article.
It’s better to be an optimist who is sometimes wrong than a pessimist who is always rightMark Twain
Recognizing Automatic Negative Thoughts
These negative thoughts can come in many forms. Sometimes they aren’t logical or rational. They can even be downright hurtful.
Examples of automatic negative thoughts:
- “I always fail”
- “I suck at math”
- “I’ve never been fit”
- “I’m not creative”
- “I’m not attractive”
- “She never listens”
When we repeat these automatic negative thoughts, it makes them harder to get rid of. Luckily, there is hope! It doesn’t take much time or effort to shift your state of mind.
We can fight back and take control of our thoughts. Thankfully, we have the freedom to choose to focus on positive or negative thoughts.
An undisciplined mind is often filled with a continuous stream of fears, anxieties, worries, and distorted perceptions. With a bit of discipline, you can recognize these thoughts to free yourself of the negativity and stress they bring. You can enjoy life despite the day-to-day burdens that come from living in this world!
Types of Automatic Negative Thoughts
There are many types of automatic negative thoughts. If you can recognize your negative thoughts when they happen, you can give them some attention and reframe them in a positive light.
All or Nothing Thinking
All or nothing thinking makes us think that situations are all good or all bad. There is no middle ground. This kind of thinking dismisses any silver lining or positive aspects of events.
Statements that show this kind of thinking are usually overgeneralizations about the situation. These statements often begin with always, never, every time, or everyone.
- “He always acts in his own interest”
- “They never pay attention to what I have to say”
- “Every time we talk, she ignores my needs”
- “Everyone hates me”
Automatic negative thoughts that include blaming are often the worst. They show that we hold someone or something else responsible for an issue in our life.
When we blame someone or something else, we are allowing ourselves to be a victim of circumstance. The act of blaming others declares that we are powerless to change anything about the situation and that we don’t need to be accountable for any of our actions.
When we realize the role that we played in the issues in our lives, we can consider how to change our actions to make things better.
- “It’s her fault that it happened”
- “If you had done this instead, we would be better off”
- “It’s not my fault that you started it”
- “Why didn’t you do what you were supposed to?”
Focusing on the Negative
Focusing on the negative aspects of a situation makes us preoccupied with everything that’s going wrong. The more negative things we find, the more the list of negatives we create will grow. This type of thinking makes us also ignore all the positives in the situation.
We have to try to see events with a balanced perspective. Ideally, we would look for as many positive aspects as we do negative, if not more.
Predicting the Future
When we try to predict future events while primed with negative emotions, we tend to predict the worst possible outcomes. Fear comes out to play and mixes with the anxiety of what we anticipate in the future.
When we expect the worse and already have negative feelings, those automatic negative thoughts can become self-fulfilling.
As the name suggests, these thoughts make us feel guilty and shameful. This thinking typically reflects a view where we are convinced that we wronged someone else.
This automatic negative thought makes us believe that we are to blame for someone else’s misfortune or suffering.
We can feel guilty for something we did, think we did, or something we want to do (whether or not we did it.) We can also experience guilt for doing better than someone else, or not doing enough to help someone.
It helps to recognize that we may be catastrophizing or overgeneralizing. There may have been an event with a negative outcome that triggered this thinking, but we should avoid blaming ourselves for everything that goes wrong. We need to also accept responsibility for the results of our actions.
Guilt is not a good internal motivator, but it can help us gain better self-understanding when we actually cause someone harm.
Guilty thoughts typically include, “should, ought, must, or have to.”
Labeling ourselves or others is overly reductive.
We add the person we label into the same group as everyone else we’ve given that label to in the past. This makes it much harder for us to interact with that person appropriately as an individual.
This can easily be seen in stereotyping. It is easy to apply labels and assume that we understand that “type” of person. It takes much more effort to question our instinct to label and categorize people, in order to get to the truth.
We have to avoid the labels so we can deal with others or ourselves in a reasonable and appropriate way.
- “She’s stupid”
- “He’s a jerk”
- “You’re arrogant”
- “He is irresponsible”
- “They are mean”
This automatic negative thought happens when we assume things that we simply cannot know. We can’t read other people’s minds. However, we may be convinced that someone will think or feel a certain way, without the person even telling us.
This thought combined with a negative tendency to think about the worse case scenarios is a recipe for disaster.
The best treatment for this negative thought is honest communication. We don’t want to assume that we know other people’s intentions or reactions.
Thinking with Feelings
We can often think with our feelings without questioning our emotional impulses. These feelings are typically based on events from our past, and we can take them at face value.
Strong emotions tend to short-circuit our rational thinking. As soon as our brains assign a meaning to an event, our emotional responses will trigger.
The more objectively we can look at a situation from multiple perspectives, the better we can gauge how to appropriately respond.
We need to see if there is any real evidence to support our feelings.
Controlling Automatic Negative Thoughts
Every thought or decision we make rewires our brain, right down to our neurotransmitters. We can choose to have positive or negative thoughts or let our thoughts default to autopilot.
Science shows us the benefits of being able to control our thoughts favorably. When we have positive thoughts and make good decisions, it improves our cellular activity and even genetic expression. Just taking control with focused thinking keeps thoughts from running rampant can show a massive improvement in how we think and feel.
Not controlling our thoughts or choosing negative thoughts can lead distress, confusion, and even despair. Without conscious control, we are prone to ruminating on negative thoughts and emotions. These feelings can grow into depression when they are allowed to repeat and reinforce negative thinking.
Rather than focusing on what you don’t want to happen, focus on what you do want.
Destroying Automatic Negative Thoughts
After deciding to control our thoughts, we need a way to actually address them. The simplest methods of taking control of negative thoughts are to objectively observe thinking, write down the negative thoughts, and reframe the thoughts.
Objectively Observe Thinking
We typically have internal scripts that we follow that trigger our thoughts or behavior. If we identify our negative scripts, we can identify the root causes of the negativity you feel, and interrupt them!
Whenever you feel mad, sad, nervous, or frustrated, think about what type of automatic negative thought you are having.
Write Down the Negative Thoughts
When you write down your automatic negative thoughts, you can find some relief by just externalizing them.
If you write down the real truth afterward, you can diffuse the negative thought.
You can get to the truth by asking four main questions:
- Do I know for a fact that the negative thought is true?
- How do I react when I think this thought?
- How would I feel without this thought?
- Who would I be without this thought?
Reframe the Thoughts
We want to direct our attention to stop the negative impact of the thought and reframe it as a healthier thought.
Take the negative words in your thoughts and replace them with positive ones. We want to take the thoughts and positively realign the negative beliefs.
Just because we have a negative thought in our heads doesn’t mean that it is true.
Mastering Your Thoughts
Beyond actively capturing and destroying your automatic negative thoughts, there are several ways you can strengthen your ability to master your thoughts.
Master your Past
Sometimes our past experiences can carry more weight than we’d like to give them.
Thankfully, we have the power to strengthen or weaken our emotional memories.
Bad memories consist of smaller parts. When you disconnect the pieces, the bad memories will fade away.
If you dissociate yourself from them, you can diffuse them or even let them empower you. It all lies in reframing the meaning behind them.
We want to make sure we learn from the bad mistakes and memories, rather than reliving them.
At the end of the day, we can’t let our pasts determine our futures. It helps to think about the future as much as you think about the past, to balance out your thinking. Thinking about the future is the first step of planning for it.
Remember: the future always starts now!
Master your Present
You can quiet your mind and focus your attention on the present moment before you. Simply practicing meditation or yoga can help you shift your focus from your thoughts to your breath.
You can also focus on what you are grateful for. It is hard to both give thanks and count all the ways things are going wrong at the same time.
When it comes to others, we want to avoid surround ourselves with negative people as much as possible. There are many naysayers and pessimists who will project their own self-doubt and negativity onto you. Along those lines, we want to make sure that we don’t project our own negative emotions onto others.
If you are wrestling with automatic negative thoughts that are hard to shake, you can try to take the focus off of yourself by doing something nice for someone else
In the end, we aren’t responsible for everything that happens to us in our lives, but we are responsible for how we respond.
After reading this article, you should have a better understanding of automatic negative thoughts. You are able to recognize the different types of negative thoughts in yourself and others.
We discussed practical ways of controlling and destroying these thoughts. We also have a clear sense of ways we can strengthen our ability to master our thoughts!